Does surviving COVID-19 accelerate the ageing process? Research begins

How does surviving COVID-19 affect the human brain? What neuropsychological changes may occur after recovering from this disease? Are the deficits faced by some survivors temporary and will they disappear with time, or will rehabilitation be necessary? Finally, how much does the functioning of people with comorbidities who have undergone COVID-19 change and does this accelerate the ageing process in this group? Psychologists from the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Gdańsk will try to answer these and many other questions thanks to the conducted research. 

Soon, at the University of Gdansk, research will begin on people who survived the COVID-19 and face the deficits that are a consequence of surviving this disease. The research will be conducted within the NCN-funded project entitled Does the Sars-Cov2 coronavirus primarily impair the functioning of the right hemisphere of the brain and the frontal attention system? Prospective studies of neuropsychological and neurophysiological consequences of COVID-19. Its leader is dr hab. Michał Harciarek, prof. UG from the Institute of Psychology, Faculty of Social Sciences.

'As part of the project, we will conduct long-term research into the neuropsychological consequences of contracting COVID-19,' - says dr hab. Michał Harciarek, prof. UG. - 'We are most interested in whether COVID-19 actually leaves its mark on the cognitive functioning of the survivors. We want to investigate whether the deficits resulting from COVID-19 infection appear in every patient, whether they recede with time, intensify, or maybe some new ones appear? We will also examine the dynamics of how people who have contracted the coronavirus function and whether the problems observed in them indicate a negative impact of the disease on the functioning of the right hemisphere of the brain.'

The right hemisphere is more responsible for non-verbal activities related to the management of visual attention. Its frontal areas seem to be particularly sensitive to disease-related hypoxia or reduced performance. At the same time, these areas are involved in the excitation and expenditure of energy in our bodies. 

'It appears that many chronic diseases affect a region of the nervous system that is associated with energy expenditure. It is a bit like when you wake up early in the morning and you don't have the strength to get up, you are a bit "foggy",' - explains prof. UG Michał Harciarek. - 'The question is whether this so-called covid fog is not an effect of neuropsychological changes. We will check whether the patients have problems with getting traction in the morning, or perhaps they get tired more than people who did not get the coronavirus. Among other things, we want to assess the processes of attention and see how much trouble, if any, might be typical of pathology in the right hemisphere of the brain and how diverse the group we are studying is in terms of functioning.' 

What can be counted as neuropsychological complications resulting from coronavirus infection? Apart from the feeling of fatigue, it is a frequent feeling of confusion, dissociation, memory problems, difficulty in recalling names, names of even well-known people, slowed thinking and difficulty in solving new problems.

Spirometer purchased for research conducted at the UG Department of Neuropsychology. Photo: Alan Stocki/UG.

'The project is targeted mainly at people who underwent coronavirus no more than six months ago and, as a result, face certain dysfunctions,' - says dr Aleksandra Mańkowska from the Department of Neuropsychology UG, the main research executive. - 'After arriving at our institute, they will undergo neuropsychological tests (mainly computer-based) measuring, among others, executive functions. These functions are the mental activities we use to relate to our environment, work, create, control time or, for example, motivate ourselves. Attentional functions such as alertness, selectivity and the ability to do several things at the same time will also be tested. Everyone who comes to us will also undergo a free basic blood test, a spirometry test and an EEG to assess whether areas in the frontal lobes have been damaged by the virus.'

Record of an EEG study. Photo: Alan Stocki/UG.

The aim of the project is not only to characterise any dysfunctions that may occur in the recovered patients but also to find out how long they persist. Therefore, all those who take part in the first stage of the study will be re-examined after about a year.

'In the project, we foresee the participation of several groups of patients, including the elderly, because we suspect that the virus may have the most destructive impact on them, and may even accelerate certain pathological processes that have already begun in these people, e.g. in connection with other coexisting chronic diseases. We are looking not only for recovered patients, but also for people who did not suffer from COVID-19, and who would like to test their psychomotor skills or reaction times, and at the same time to be a comparison group for patients,' - adds dr Aleksandra Mańkowska.

What is important, the results of the research conducted by psychologists from UG will allow further steps to be taken with regard to people experiencing deficits - it will be possible to create a specific rehabilitation programme for patients targeted at particular problems.

The project is implemented in cooperation with the Medical University of Gdańsk.


How to sign up for the study? Just follow the fanpage of the Department of Neuropsychology, where you will soon find a link to the registration form, through which applications will be accepted.
Elżbieta Michalak-Witkowska / Press Office UG